Artsy, jumbled, and colorful, Valparaíso is a rainbow of buildings, graffiti murals, past splendor, and present-day bohemian pluck. It’s laid back but not lazy, artistic but not pretentious. The city used to be the stomping grounds for Pablo Neruda and the most important port between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans prior to the building of the Panama Canal, and it honors its past without clinging to it. When you walk around it, you get the feeling of a city reinvented by artists and students, which espouses a youthful spirit, despite its being founded in 1536.
Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Valparaíso consists of two parts: El Plan, the flat part of the city by the docks, and the hilly part with 42 cerros (hills). Many of the more notable restaurants and works of art are located within the hills, most easily reached on foot or via a funicular, a diagonal elevator. Beaches are easily accessible via bus or train rides along the coast, and fresh fish and seafood available for a filling lunch by the docks. Bring an open mind, sturdy walking shoes, and a sense of curiosity. Locals are generally helpful, friendly, and willing to share their own stories of their beloved city, which they call "Valpo."
What to Do in Valparaíso
See street art: Valparaíso is a major street art hub known throughout the world. Chilean artists as well as international ones have painted many a mural, political message, seascape, or other imaginative scene on its walls, stairs, and sidewalks. Join a street art tour to learn some of the history and see some of the most famous pieces, like the Beethoven Street piano stairs or the "We Are Happies Not Hippies" mural. Alternatively, you can look up specific pieces and go on your own, or simply pick a hill and wander around its streets to see what you find.
Visit museums: The most famous museums in the region are La Sebastiana and Isla Negra, both former homes of the Nobel Prize-winning poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda. While Isla Negra is about an hour’s drive away from Valpo, La Sebastiana stands in the city itself and was even a subject of one of Neruda’s poems. La Sebastiana contains many of his original possessions, including an arm chair where he wrote and read. Managed by the Fundacion de Pablo Neruda, entry is on a first-come, first-serve basis and costs the equivalent of about $9. Other museums in the city include: the Museo de Historia Natural de Valparaíso, the Palacio Baburizza, and the Museo Maritime Natural.
Ride the funiculars: Built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to ease the commute of residents walking up and down the city’s 40-plus hills, 16 remain of the original 30 funiculars, and currently, seven are operational. (Imagine a single train car going up a hill at an incline, and that is essentially what a funicular is.) Hop on one or several, as each ride costs less than a dollar. Take the El Peral Funicular to explore Cerro Alegre, or ride the Cordillera Funicular to see Valpo’s first observatory.
Go to the Beach: Valpo has its own beaches, like Playa Torpederas, but the more relaxing and pristine beaches are a bus ride out of town. Consider going to nearby Viña del Mar’s Caleta Abarca Beach, perfect for sun bathing in warm, golden sand next to cool, clean ocean water. Further north, about an hour away by bus, upscale Reñaca Beach is known for its parties, beach sports, and club scene. While the weather might be warm, expect cold water (similar to California beaches) throughout the year due to the Humboldt Current.
Attend a festival: On New Year’s Eve, fireworks are set off from 15 points along Valparaíso’s coast at the stroke of midnight, starting the new year with the largest fireworks display in all of South America. Any high point in the city will do for watching the show, but find a spot early, as many people begin waiting around 5 p.m. Street vendors sell snacks and booze before and during the show throughout the city. After the fireworks finish, check out block parities with DJs spinning in the streets and pasajes. Another major party on Valpo's shores is the Summer Ink Festival, which combines music and tattoo art. Listen to Chilean punk and rock bands, and see American, Colombian, and Brazilian tattoo artists in action at the tattoo exhibit.
What to Eat and Drink in Valparaíso
Fresh catches of fish and seafood come in daily, making them the main plates to try in town. The nearby vineyards of the Casablanca Valley supply Valpo with sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and pinot noir, all of which thrive in central Chile’s cool climate. Other notable dishes to sample not connected to seafood are the chorrillana (sausage, kebab, and steak on top of fries), ajiaco (a leftover barbecue stew said to cure hangovers), and the chacarero (green bean sandwich).
Given the long-held international appeal of the city and its bohemian vibe, there’s also spots for vegetarians, health-conscious restaurants, gourmet bistros, and international food joints, specializing in ramen, Thai dishes, fresh juice, macaroons, and more.
Fresh fish: Reinata (pomfret) and merluza (hake) are the two most popular fish in Chile. Both soft and white, the pomfret is milder than the hake. Purchase them directly from fisherman at Caleta Portales, the main fish market. Another popular spot, Caleta el Membrillo, is a fishing cove with plenty of restaurants serving the catch of the day. To visit a farmer’s market, head to Mercado Cardonal, which houses seafood restaurants in its upper level and fruit, veg, and cheese sellers on the first floor.
Seafood empanadas: A classic Chilean food, Chilean empanadas are much larger than their Argentine counterparts. Try traditional flavors of meat, chicken, or corn, or opt for one with fruits of the sea. Empanadas del marisco (seafood empanadas) get stuffed with mussels and white fish and are perfect to split with a sightseeing buddy. Stop by Delicias Express to taste one or several of their 84 flavors of empanadas or look for them being sold by street vendors or in traditional Chilean restaurants throughout the city.
Ceviche: From fishermen’s carts to the most luxurious of Valparaíso’s restaurants, fresh ceviche is everywhere in this city. Buy it in plastic cups at Caleta Portales from the fishermen themselves or head to El Perral to pair it with an ahi sour.
Pisco sours: This quintessential Chilean cocktail is made of pisco, tangy lemon, and frothy egg whites. Enjoy one with a view at Hotel Brighton, nestled on the edge of Cerro Concepion. Another popular spot is Bar Cinzano, one of the oldest bars in the city, known as much for its cocktails as its nightly live music. If you want to bar hopping, head to Cumming Street where you can try pisco sours, regional wine, and craft beer.
Where to Stay in Valparaíso
Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion are where most tourists base themselves. These neighborhoods contain some of the most famous street art murals in the city, a wide range of restaurants, some solid bars, and plenty of cute shops selling artisan wares. Colorful, well-preserved buildings perch on steep inclines, meaning you’ll burn some calories on your way to and from your hotel (or take the funiculars or buses). Both hills contain accommodation for all budgets, including hostels, Airbnbs, and luxury hotels set in restored mansions. Many of the more upscale hotels have an attached restaurant and include breakfast in the booking price.
Ask for a room with large windows and views of the bay. Check with your hotel about air conditioning and parking as both are not so easily accessible in these neighborhoods.
Getting Around Valparaíso
Valpo has tons of minibuses that are super cheap. You can go to bus stops, but it's not necessary to catch one. Drivers will stop anywhere along their route as long as you stick your arm out and flag them down. The “O” bus (also labeled as the 612) is a popular option as it runs parallel to the ocean, has amazing views, and stops near many of the city's most visited spots, like Cerro Alegre and the Congreso Nacional. Plan to pay the equivalent of $0.50 per ride.
Valparaíso does not have an airport or long-distance train but can be easily reached from Santiago by bus or car. Rent a car and drive yourself or check out Tur Bus or Pullman Bus for bus schedules and prices. Alternatively, just go to Terminal Alameda at Universidad de Santiago metro station and hop on the next available bus. The drive time is about an hour and a half and costs around $11. Buses run daily, every 15 minutes from 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.